Amazon is giving the Alexa voice platform a shot in the arm after seeing a further decline in skill growth over the past year, indicating lingering interest from third-party voice app developers. At the company’s Alexa Live developer event today, the company announced a number of new features and tools for the developer community – the largest release of new tools to date. Among the new releases are those that encourage Alexa device owners to discover and engage with Alexa skills, new tools to monetize skills and other updates that will push customers to make Alexa more a part of their daily routines.
The retailer’s hopes for Alexa as a voice shopping platform may not have come as it had hoped, as only a few Alexa customers actually bought Amazon.com through the smart speakers. However, the larger Alexa footprint and developer community is quite large, Amazon said today, noting that “millions”
However, Amazon has not solved the challenge of helping customers find and discover skills they want to use – something that has been historically difficult on voice-only devices. The launch of Alexa devices with monitors, such as the Alexa Show, which offers a visual component, has improved somewhat.
But for the most part, Alexa device owners continue to use the most basic features – smart home control, playing music, setting alarms and reminders, creating lists and other simple questions. It has not yet produced what for most people will be considered a “runaway hit” voice app.
In an effort to address this multi-feature issue, Amazon says it will introduce a way for developers to create widgets for their skills, which customers can add to the Echo Show or other Alexa display device sometime later this year. Developers will also be able to build Featured Skill Cards to market their rotation skills on the home screen.
In other words, Amazon’s solution is to make Alexa more like a mobile device when it comes to app discovery. While useful for those who have Alexa devices with monitors, it does not bode well for Alexa’s future as a single voice platform.
In the meantime, for voice-only devices, developers will now be able to have their skills suggested when Alexa responds to common queries, such as “Alexa, tell me a story,” “Alexa, let’s play a game,” or “Alexa, I need a training session, “among others. And Alexa will begin offering personal skills suggestions based on customers’ use of similar skills, while new” contextual discovery “mechanisms will allow customers to use natural language and expression to perform tasks across skills. Amazon has tried other ways to suggest skills before now, but these effects have been insignificant on the larger skills ecosystem. (Some efforts even annoyed users.)
Amazon also said it is expanding the ways developers can get paid for their skills.
It already offers tools such as consumables, paid subscriptions and smart purchases. Now it will add support for Paid Skills, a new acquisition of skills that allows customers to pay a one-time fee to access the content a skill provides. It will also now expand the acquisition of skills to India and Canada.
So far, acquisitions in skill have not yet yielded significant revenue. A 2019 report found that Alexa skills revenue for the first 10 months of the year was only $ 1.4 million, well below Amazon’s $ 5.5 million goal. It is uncertain that another way of buying will change that trend.
Amazon did not talk about how much the developers earned, but instead just said that the developer revenue from skilled purchasing had “more than doubled” the year before.
Amazon will now try to leverage the developer community to drive retail sales as well.
With new “Shopping Actions”, developers can sell Amazon products in their skill. For example, a role-playing game may suggest that customers buy the table version, as the sci-fi game Starfinder does. Developers can also now earn associated revenue from product referrals.
Music and media knowledge developers will be able to use new tools for more entertaining experiences, such as a Song Request Skill that DJs can use to take song requests via Alexa, which iHeartRadio will adopt. Others want to shorten the time it takes for radio, podcast and music providers to launch interactive experiences.
Other new features aim to make the skills more practical and useful.
For example, restaurants will have access to a Food Skill API that allows them to create pickup and delivery of ordering experiences. A new “Send to Phone” feature will allow developers to connect their skills to mobile devices, and new event-based triggers and proactive suggestions will enable new experiences – as a skill that reminds users to lock their home when traveling. Amazon-owned Whole Foods will use these features for a pickup experience coming later this year, the company says.
Alexa refill support, which enables customers to rearrange regular household items such as detergent or batteries, will also be extended to spare parts to better connect to other types of household and smart home devices. Thermostat manufacturers Carrier and Resideo will use this to top up air filters, and Bissell will use this with the vacuum cleaners.
In the meantime, manufacturers of security devices – such as smoke, carbon monoxide and water leak detectors – will be able to connect to Alexa’s security system, Alexa Guard, to send alerts to mobile devices.
Amazon is also introducing a set of new tools that make it easier for developers to create skills, including the ability to use Alexa Entities, which is basically Amazon’s own set of general, Wikipedia-like knowledge. They will also have access to new tools to help with custom pronunciations, plus the former US-only Alexa Conversations native language feature (now in beta in Germany, previewing developers in Japan and live in all English languages). A longer list of tools focuses on regional extensions of existing toolkits (eg AVS, ACK) and others that enable better interoperability with smart home devices – such as those that provide unique watchwords.